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Warner Home Video presents

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

"I'm prepared for this, Jim. And I'm going to accomplish it. I know I won't get but this one opportunity and you can bet your life I'm not going to spoil it."- Robert Ford (Casey Affleck)

Stars: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
Other Stars: Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schrader, Jeremy Renner, Zoey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell, Garret Dillahunt
Director: Andrew Dominik

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and brief sexual references
Run Time: 02h:39m:20s
Release Date: 2008-02-12
Genre: western

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BA-A- D-


DVD Review

Rarely has a film's title revealed its climax with such undisguised clarity. From the beginning of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we clearly understand that the famous outlaw will not survive until the end. Played with a weary cynicism by Brad Pitt, Jesse hardly resembles the charismatic villains of the classic Hollywood westerns. As the story progresses, Jesse evolves into a paranoid thug who’s willing to murder his associates based on even a minor suspicion. It's a tricky performance for Pitt, who must blend shadows of Jesse’s infamous reputation with his later day misfortune. Rising to fame with his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), Jesse is unwilling to fade slowly into the sunset but too mistrustful to recruit an effective gang. He seriously longs for another rich score but trusts no one, and his personality shifts between geniality and utter nastiness. Frank is a grizzled veteran ready to settle down, and he disdains the wannabe outlaws that ride Jesse's coattails. His ability to dismiss the past saves him from his brother's fate, which differs considerably from the glorious deaths of typical movie legends.

The story begins in August 1881 and depicts the Blue Cut train robbery—the last great caper of the James gang. Jesse's accomplices for this heist are mostly small-time criminals, not the hardened outlaws from the James gang’s heyday. They bicker over minor issues and are a pretty sorry lot. One of the robbers is Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell), and his involvement brings Jesse into contact with his younger brother, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck)—an obsessive James gang admirer. The 19-year-old has collected the grand stories and tall tales for years, and his fixation on Jesse mirrors today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. Robert is a quiet, creepy fellow who longs to be someone, but lacks the basic social skills. However, his strange, yet low-key demeanor makes him a safe choice for Jesse, so he allows them to become allies. Affleck earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this intriguing performance, which outshines Pitt's uneven depiction. As the youngest member of the group, Robert is incessantly harassed by everyone. This only causes frustration, intensifying his attempts to be somebody. Affleck is generally a charismatic performer, and his ability to play such an eerie but understandable guy is surprising.

New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik earned tremendous acclaim for his debut picture Chopper, which offered another fictionalized version of a real person, Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read. Supported by the elegant cinematography of Roger Deakins, Dominik aims to craft a transcendent picture like Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. Certain scenes are remarkable and come close to reaching that level, but the overall result is inconsistent. The 160-minute running time is too long to support a personal, slow-moving tale. Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner are memorable in supporting roles, but the film grinds to a halt when Pitt and Affleck leave the screen. The Jesse/Robert confrontation is interesting, but it's never clear why the lengthy exploits of the other characters are so essential. The deliberate pace allows for some pretty footage of open landscapes, but long shots of Pitt doing nothing become snooze-inducing by the third hour. Some serious editing might have led to an Oscar-caliber picture. Instead, we're left with a sometimes-brilliant, often-disappointing experiment.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a divisive picture that will intrigue some audiences while driving others crazy. My experience offered both of these extremes at different points during the viewing. One aspect that's surprisingly effective is the frequent narration, which shifts between historical information and literary passages. This film is adapted from Ron Hansen's book, and I expect the narrator's words contain language taken directly from that piece. This device builds on the story's somber tone by revealing the inevitability of the entire proceedings. The epilogue showcasing Ford's experiences after the killing (including where the title "coward" comes from) are especially poignant and reveal that Jesse’s death served almost no one's interests. If Dominik's screenplay had focused less on ethereal images and more on Ford's later plight, it might have avoided drifting into sleepy territory. However, it's exciting to see a writer/director take a chance and avoid the safest route. During the past few days, I've reflected sadly on the picture’s final act, which grows more interesting with each consideration. It's the least-predictable section and poignantly shows the sad final chapter of Robert Ford's life. I don't expect to revisit this film anytime soon, but am glad to see a studio picture that confounds expectations, even when it fails.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Roger Deakins' impressive cinematography shines in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, which conveys the bleak winter of Jesse James' final year. Some minimal grain exists, but it fails to distract much from the sharp imagery. A visual highlight is the train robbery, which envelops the gang in smoke and chaos to create a unique experience.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This disc includes a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital track that effectively presents the story's mournful tone. The music from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis maintains the proper atmosphere and moves well throughout the room. The sounds of the open prairie also stand out, though the complexity falls just short of the premier transfers.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 37 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring One Missed Call; 10,000 BC; The Bucket List; The Brave One; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Warner Home Video deserves a serious slap on the wrist for this film-only DVD release. Numerous possibilities exist to explore the history of Jesse James and this film's production. I'm certain that a two-disc special edition will appear sometime this year, which makes this version a shame. This release includes scene selections and some pre-menu trailers, and that's all.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

Brad Pitt's star power wasn't enough to generate box-office interest in the lengthy epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It lacks the crowd-pleasing action of the recent 3:10 to Yuma and takes a revisionist look at the Western myths. The film is seriously uneven, but it's worth a rental if you're searching for a different take on the genre. This extremely limited DVD release isn’t worth a purchase, so fans should definitely wait for a more worthy option.

Dan Heaton 2008-02-26